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Lobbyist on quest for legal prostitution in Vegas

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Politics,Crime,Associated Press,Las Vegas,Lobbying

MOUND HOUSE, Nev. (AP) -- The brothel lobbyist always rings twice, George Flint explained as he shambled up the walkway to the Sagebrush Ranch, a scattering of bawdy houses in a cul-de-sac just 10 minutes from the Legislature.

That way, the working girls know they don't have to line up to primp for a paying customer.

Inside, the small brothel is Nevada casino dark, tinged with red lighting. During Flint's visit on a recent Wednesday afternoon, girls napped on couches and armchairs.

The brothel's public room was empty of other men. Flint, 78, propped himself on a stool at the bar. A brunette and a blonde -- Trinity and Star -- sat beside him, taking advantage of a lull in business to sip sodas and watch true crime mysteries on television.

Flint pulled out his business cards. He has two sets.

One is for his job as brothel lobbyist: "Your insurance against the Legislature," he told the girls, according to the Las Vegas Sun (http://bit.ly/T5Iv0X).

His second business card seems incongruous with his first.

"And if you get married," he said, handing them a card for his wedding chapel business.

Yes, Flint is also a minister.

"Oh! I just got engaged," said Star, her face brightening.

Flint is entering his 28th year as a uniquely Nevada political fixture: brothel lobbyist, wedding chapel owner, self-proclaimed mayor of the coffee shop at the Legislature and, perhaps most importantly, keeper of secrets.

Since the first Nevada "house of ill fame," as they're sometimes referred to in state law, was licensed in 1971, brothels have operated in low-slung "ranches" near industrial sites where wild mustangs graze. The businesses are residue of the state's libertarian mining camp ethos.

Flint -- who wears glasses with lenses the size of baseballs and walks with a heavy limp caused by a 1975 car crash after a night of celebrating a legislative victory -- is the man who represents them at the Legislature.

Since becoming the industry's lobbyist in 1985, he has cultivated a low profile for the industry and himself.

"You don't want to rub this business too much in people's faces," Flint said.

But for an industry that is only one bill away from annihilation, Flint has big plans -- he hears the footsteps of time, and this might be his last session.

He's planning to take a run at the grandest date of all, the holy grail and great white whale of the brothel industry rolled into one: convincing lawmakers to allow legal prostitution in Clark County and Las Vegas.

Technically, it's a simple fix: Eliminate a state law that says only counties with fewer than 700,000 people can issue work cards to prostitutes and brothel owners. Then, the Clark County Commission would have to allow it.

But Flint is inclined to make a more specific, major push in Clark County, the specifics of which he's not ready to talk about yet.

Politically, though, it's a massive effort, and Flint is working it both at the state and county levels.

'He could own this state'

Flint's job as a lobbyist is traditional in many ways.

He chats up lawmakers, testifies at committee hearings, and hands out campaign checks to candidates -- only one of which was returned this year, Flint said proudly.

But by virtue of the industry he lobbies for, Flint also logs some fairly nontraditional duties -- offering tours of Nevada's houses of ill fame to gawking lawmakers and even handing out "freebie" visits to legislators with the women who work there.

But things may be changing.

The days when lawmakers would ask for passes to the brothels from Flint have quieted. For the first time, there were no requests last session, Flint said.

Over the years, Flint has seen the industry change. He's watched, sometimes uncomfortably, as it climbed slowly out of those obscure bushes in the state's remote counties and onto cable television.

There's outspoken brothel owner Dennis Hof, star of the HBO series "Cathouse."

Lance Gilman, another brothel owner, was just elected to the Storey County Commission, bringing a new round of oh-my-gosh national media stories about the only state in the country where prostitution is legal.

"Maybe this is a door opener; it allows a little more visibility of the industry," Flint said. "We have nothing to be ashamed of and a lot to be proud of, in fact."

Flint's reality: Men pay for sex

To Flint, the rest of the country -- even Las Vegas -- is living in denial. They've been playing with prohibition, decades after it proved it didn't work with alcohol.

Meanwhile, underaged girls are trafficked. Pimps beat up women. Sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are spread. Money changes hands -- $7 billion a year in Las Vegas, Flint estimates -- to criminals as part of a dark economy.

On prostitution, in Flint's view, it's a binary choice: illegal and dangerous or regulated and safe.

From the pulpit to the brothel

It wasn't actually prostitution that first landed Flint in the Legislature. It was his job as a minister and wedding chapel owner.

Flint was born April 12, 1934. His parents were both preachers, ministering particularly to the Southern California Japanese-American community. When the United States shipped off the Japanese-Americans to internment camps in Wyoming during World War II, his parents moved with them to minister. Flint was in the fifth grade.

Back then, there were brothels all over Wyoming, Flint said, maybe not legal, but tolerated and accepted.

Flint was a sportswriter for his high school newspaper and would travel around the region with the football and boys' basketball teams. Brothels were sometimes stops on those trips.

He went inside, he said, but, "I never went to the bedroom -- hell, I was 15 or 16, scared to death."

The owners of one brothel, the Yellow Hotel, would come into his dad's photo shop -- his parents couldn't afford to live on the modest salary the congregation paid -- when they lived in Lusk.

"My father had a terrible distaste for them because they were in prostitution," Flint said.

But to Flint, the owners of the brothel were "lovely people. Good businesspeople."

After high school, Flint went to the College of the Open Bible in Des Moines, Iowa, where he studied theology for three years. He doesn't know why he did it.

"I was never motivated to go into the ministry," he said.

In 1961, married with four young kids, Flint visited his sister, who worked in a wedding chapel in Reno. They performed seven weddings in one day, and he saw a business.

In the spring of 1962, he moved his family to Reno and started his own chapel.

At that time, every other state but Nevada required either a waiting period before couples got married or a blood test. Nevada required neither, and Reno and Las Vegas were ready-made cheap honeymoon towns.

Reading the newspaper during the 1963 legislative session, he started to get a bug.

"It looked to me like we were on rocky ground," he said of the chapel business. "We weren't respected. The attitude was that we married runaway kids."

The evangelicals and the Catholics wanted the quickie-marriage industry gone.

His first legislative war came in 1967, when Nevada's church leadership tried to squash the wedding chapel business -- which they regarded as irreverent competition, Flint said.

To do it, Nevada church officials fronted a bill in the state Senate that would have declared couples married as soon as they picked up a marriage license -- a move that would have essentially killed the quickie wedding chapel business.

Local pastors came up and testified their support.

Then it was Flint's turn.

Unbeknownst to the local pastors, Flint had called church officials at their out-of-state headquarters, including the Methodist, Catholic and Assembly of God leadership.

When he took the microphone, Flint explained to lawmakers that the national church leaders thought the idea of marriage via certificate was "very unorthodox, very nontraditional."

In fact, he got the national leadership to say "that was the dumbest thing they ever heard of." And he got them on tape.

"It was a good bloodletting," he said.

Church leadership, after talking to the local pastors, claimed they were duped.

"I wasn't 100 percent honest," Flint said. "I didn't tell them I was with a chapel."

He was scolded by the lawmakers for his tactics, but the bill was dead. The industry was protected.

Since then, Flint says, he has pretty well rewritten most of Nevada's wedding laws, including taking justices of the peace out of the business.

The great white whale

In 1985, Flint received a message at the Legislature that led to his role as both wedding chapel minister and brothel lobbyist.

A pair of brothel owners called him out to the Kit Kat Ranch, east of Carson City, for a meeting.

"There's a new disease out there, called AIDS," Flint remembers them saying. And, they worried, "it could be the downfall of the industry."

They needed help keeping state lawmakers from trying to shut them down.

Flint took the job, and since then, he's not only fought off efforts to abolish legal prostitution, but tried to further weave the industry into the state's economic fabric.

At least twice, he's unsuccessfully worked to pass a state tax on prostitution, believing that lawmakers would never kill an industry on which it depended for money. Efforts in 2003 and 2009 failed because lawmakers felt the issue had become too big of a distraction for a relatively small amount of money.

But in the 2013 Legislature, which starts in February, Flint said he's going to make a run at more sweeping legislation.

He said he has two lawmakers in the Assembly -- whom he would not name -- interested in "addressing the problem" of illegal prostitution in Clark County, by legalizing and regulating the industry.

Flint also said this might be his last session.

"I'm dedicated to doing it in my lifetime," he said. "I feel the lack of legalization and regulation in Clark County creates a huge amount of crime that needs to be addressed."

Plus, he estimated, it could bring in $300 million to $400 million in taxes for the county, city or state, every two years.

But to do it, he'll have to overcome the state's biggest industry: the casinos.

Billy Vassiliadis, a top lobbyist and marketer in Las Vegas -- but not speaking on behalf of the Nevada Resort Association, in this case -- said legalizing prostitution would damage the prestige of the Strip, where some of the highest-class resorts in the world have been built.

"It is not consistent with what business travelers, convention delegates want," he said.

Guy Rocha, a state historian who has studied the legal brothel industry, said Flint's quest was a long shot. No longer does Nevada lead the way in libertarian trailblazing, as it did with divorce, boxing, gambling and the marriage industry. Instead, other states have taken the lead on issues like legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Nevada, with its corporate-owned casinos, is more cautious.

"Prohibition on sex for sale has failed, is a failure and will continue to be a failure," he said.

'It's not totally not normal'

Flint admits his dual role as minister and brothel lobbyist is "incongruous."

"It was never planned," he said.

But he likes to bring up the Bible in defending the brothel industry.

"Who was Jesus' best friend? I think it was Mary Magdalene," he said.

His second wife, Betty -- to whom he has been married 44 years -- and children are fine with his brothel lobbying, though he admits his wife sometimes gets irked when he shows friendship to some of the girls.

Has he ever been to a brothel? Of course, Flint said. He went out with a reporter the other day. Here's what you really want to know: "If you're asking if I've been to the bedroom? Yeah. I have."

Between his first and second marriages, in the 1960s, "I reached out for the solace and warmth of professionals," he said.

But would Flint want one of his family members working in the brothel business?

"I had one daughter who died in her late 40s of alcoholism. A lot of times, I think she'd have been better off at the Mustang Ranch," he said, getting quiet.

Flint revels in telling real-life "Pretty Woman" stories, about the prostitutes who've made it out -- used sex work to bank cash so they could get an education, become a nurse or get a doctorate, or met a husband through work.

But they don't all end up that way. One of the women Flint introduced during an interview with the Sun has been working as a prostitute for two decades. She is now 50 years old and admitted she needed to find a new line of work. But what?

Flint could sense a reporter's uneasiness with the profession.

But he justifies his quest for the spread of legalized prostitution with the knowledge that it is happening, regulated or not.

"All day today, nothing I've told you -- I'm not going to tell you this is totally normal," he said finally. "But don't think it's totally not normal either."

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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